Recent tragic events have piqued the nation’s eagerness to act against gun violence. The majority of Americans wants stronger gun control, yet our representatives refuse to act.
On Thursday, a sniper opened fire on a crowd at a peaceful protest against police brutality in Dallas, Texas. Five officers were killed, and seven officers and two civilians were wounded. The suspect, who was killed in the conflict, was identified as Micah Xavier Johnson, an Afghan War veteran from Mesquite, TX.
These events have continued the disturbing trend of escalating gun violence throughout the nation in recent days. The country had not yet had a chance to catch its breath after the horrific mass shooting in June at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. That attack, perpetrated by 29-year-old security guard Omar Mateen, killed 49 people and wounded 53 — America’s deadliest mass shooting in recent history.
This type of bloodshed is on the rise in America. A recent study in Mother Jones found the average frequency of “mass shootings” in the U.S. between 2011 and 2015 to be about 5 per year, amounting to an average of 20 such incidents in less than half a decade.
This is saying nothing of the massive epidemic of gun violence in cities such as Philadelphia. A report by ABC News last year showed that by summertime, 692 Philadelphians had been the victims of gun violence in 2015 an increase of over 70 victims from the previous year.
Alarmingly, these acts of violence are also increasingly compounded with acts of police violence. Last week’s killings of Sterling and Castile have joined a long string of highly public police killings of African-Americans, causing widespread outrage. According to the Washington Post, police in America fatally shot nearly 1,000 people in 2015. So far this year, 566 people have already been fatally shot by police.
These incidents have disproportionately targeted African-Americans. The watchdog site Mapping Police Violence found that in 2015, five times more unarmed black people were killed by police than unarmed white people.
Together, these tragic events have had a particular effect on the nation’s eagerness to act. In the few weeks since the Orlando shooting took place, gun violence has set off a firestorm of discussion on homophobia, hate crime, counterterrorism, immigration, and above all, the question of the over-accessibility of deadly weapons in the United States. Last week’s events are adding fuel to those flames. At the same time, rising awareness of unchecked police brutality has likewise created a public sense of urgency to act on state-sanctioned gun violence, especially as it effects African-Americans.
What the people want; what the rulers want
On June 23, House Democrats, induced by Rep. John Lewis, staged a highly publicized sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in an attempt to force the Republican majority to vote on gun control legislation. The action came after the Senate had voted down four different gun control proposals three days earlier. Following the sit-in, the House of Representatives refused to even hold a vote.
While many deeper issues are at hand in the nation’s overwhelmingly violent climate, all of which demand analysis and action, it stands to reason that in the face of a relentless stream of public shootings, some kind of preventative measures should be taken. The first and most obvious of these measures involves the ability of individuals with violent intentions to access firearms.
As it happens, this opinion is shared by the overwhelming majority of Americans. In polls conducted by Quinnipac University last month, 93 percent of those polled registered support for universal background checks for all gun purchases. Furthermore 59 percent supported a ban on assault weapons, with only 37 percent opposed.
Yet in the face of this near-unanimous public call for stronger gun control, the House is obstinate. If our representatives are not enacting the will of the people, presumably, they are enacting the will of someone else.
It is no secret, especially not in the current election cycle, that politicians are heavily influenced by the desires of wealthy campaign contributors, nor that the group with the most immediate interest in blocking any gun control bill is the NRA.
“The association spends millions of dollars every campaign cycle, both on direct campaign contributions and independent expenditures,” according to WNYC. “This combination totaled $8.5 million in expenditures in 2010, ranking tenth most for outside spending groups in that election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.”
Meanwhile, seemingly constant news of what some regard as police terror has led to public outcry for justice and accountability in law enforcement, spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement. Now this situation has also led to retaliatory acts against police, threatening to cause continued escalation and more bloodshed. The discussion of weapons regulation comes directly to bear on this situation as well; any move toward conscionable gun control legislation would be empty without also pushing forward serious legislation to demilitarize police forces. This is merely one of many actions necessary to restrain abuse of power.
Government by the people
Regardless of the cause, there is a stark disparity between the wishes of virtually all the American people on these issues, and the actions of their representatives. The representative republic has failed.
On June 24, the world witnessed the historic exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union by referendum vote. Whatever one’s individual feelings on the wisdom of this decision, one fact remains: It was taken by the British people, against the will of their reigning administration, democratically.
For the voting public to make such a decision rather than their government is in a certain sense extraordinary from an American standpoint, but not necessarily to the rest of the world. Last year, marriage equality was passed in Ireland by referendum vote. Switzerland has been implementing an extensive system of direct democracy since 1848. Last month the country used this system to vote down a proposal for guaranteed basic income.
It is therefore worth considering that in the tradition of these and other worldwide examples, when you have over 90% of a population which desires a certain course of action, and a body of representatives which refuses to take that course, it is time to disempower that authority and take the matter into our own hands. America needs gun control and police artillery control referendums.
This is not an altogether unprecedented proposition. Nationwide referendums are currently not permitted by the constitution, meaning that introducing them into the political system would involve the passage of a constitutional amendment: a daunting and complex political task which may be worthy of building a national movement at some point, but for which there is no time where gun violence is concerned as lives are rapidly being lost as a result of the government’s recalcitrance.
However, a majority of US states as well as the District of Columbia allow initiatives and referendums which are included on election ballots. At present, the issues that are put to popular vote in this format tend to be relatively banal and innocuous, with the possible exception of drug control reform in states such as Massachusetts and California. Gun and police reform must receive this treatment.
If the House and Senate cannot perform the function of protecting the people from gun violence at the national level, then it should be accomplished state by state, through popular order. The people must exert their self-determination to save themselves from further carnage. The government is not interested in doing so.